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Conservatives ungovernable on EU

by Tina Burrett

The 2010 parliamentary intake of Conservative members of Parliament (MPs) was the most Euroskeptic ever elected to the House of Commons.

The range of views on Europe within the Conservative Party is more narrowly confined to the Euroskeptic end of the spectrum than in any previous parliament.

Only 50 of the Conservatives’ 305 MPs are members of the parliamentary party’s Europhile group, Mainstream European. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron shares the Euroskeptic instincts of the majority within his party. Although the prime minister does not want to see Britain leave the European Union, he is committed to repatriating powers from Brussels. Why then is the Conservative Party yet again tearing itself apart over the issue of Europe?

To reassure Conservative Euroskeptics, in January, Cameron pledged an in-out referendum on the EU for 2017, a date chosen to give the prime minister time to renegotiated the terms of Britain’s membership an alternative to withdrawal.

But fulfillment of this promise depends on Cameron still being prime minister after the next general election in May 2015, as neither the Labour Party nor the Liberal Democrats are committed to holding a referendum. Cameron’s referendum pledge has not assuaged Tory rebellion against his leadership. On May 15, 116 Conservative MPs backed a parliamentary motion condemning the queen’s speech — drafted by their own government — for failing to include legislation on a referendum in this parliament.

It is now almost impossible to imagine Cameron finding a compromise on Europe that will satisfy his party, as for many Conservatives only exit from the EU will suffice. Last week two Cabinet ministers, Education Secretary Michael Gove and Defense Secretary Philip Hammond undermined the prime minister’s position by declaring publicly that they would vote to leave the EU if a referendum was held today. Thatcher-era Chancellor Lord Lawson has also said he would vote to quit the EU, as he does not believe renegotiation will deliver significant results. Lawson is right. Why would other EU states allow the U.K. to pick and choose which directive to follow, when the concept of European integration rests on uniformity?

There can be no doubt that Conservative Party tensions over Europe have been exacerbated by the impressive performance of the anti-Europe U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) in county council elections held in England on May 2. UKIP gained 139 councilors, while the Conservative lost 335. The latest ComRes survey of voting intentions put Labour on 35 percentage, the Conservatives on 28 percentage and UKIP on 19 percentage.

Owing to the peculiarities of the U.K.’s first-past-the-post electoral system, even with a fifth of the vote, UKIP would be unlikely to win more than a handful of parliamentary seats at the 2015 general election — if any at all. But UKIP could gnaw enough support away from the Conservatives to cost Tory MPs in marginal constituencies their seats.

Although UKIP’s rise attests to public anxieties about Europe, immigration and welfare across the political spectrum, the Conservatives have lost far more voters to the anti-European party than Labour and the Liberal Democrats. It does not follow, however, that the Conservatives should capitulate to an agenda set by UKIP’s populist leader, the beer-swigging, cigarette-puffing Nigel Farage.

The worst course the Conservatives could take is the one they seem determined to pursue — attacking Cameron’s strategy on Europe, and thereby creating the impression of panic and disunity. While Tory rebels accuse the prime minister of being out of touch with ordinary voters, Cameron remains one of the Conservative Party’s few electoral assets. The prime minister’s renegotiate-then-decide policy on Europe chimes with the feelings of a majority of British voters.

Furthermore, when asked which British party leader would make the best prime minister, Cameron continues to poll above his rivals. Allies of the prime minister are right to label as “nutters” and “swivel-eyed loons” Conservative MPs who seek to undermine Cameron over Europe.

If the Tories follow the advice of Nigel Farage and jettison Cameron in favor of a leader better able to broker a deal with UKIP, it will be a sure sign that the loons had taken over the asylum.

Cameron’s Tory critics may be keen to cozy up to UKIP, but equally, by reopening old wounds over Europe, they seek to distance themselves from their Liberal Democrat coalition partners. Before the 2015 general election, Conservative MPs want to advertise the kinds of policies they would introduce if not restrained by the Lib Dems — deeper cuts to welfare benefits and the provision of legal aid, for example.

Given the staunchly pro-EU position of the Lib Dems, Europe is the ideal issue on which to sabotage the coalition. In addition, Tory MPs blame the Lib Dem’s fiercely Europhile leader Nick Clegg for blocking inclusion of legislation on a EU referendum in the queen’s speech.

Cameron must also shoulder some responsibility for his party’s divisions on Europe. On Sunday, Lord Howe, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s long-serving foreign secretary, criticized Cameron for opening a Pandora’s box earlier this year, by conceding to a referendum on Europe in 2017.

Lord Mandelson, a former EU commissioner and Cabinet minister under prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, advises Cameron to take a tougher line in dealing with his internal party critics. Blair sacked Mandelson himself from the Cabinet for a lesser misdemeanor than contradicting government policy.

By capitulating to Tory backbench demands for a referendum, Cameron has shown that he can be pushed around. In giving in to backbench bullies, Howe argues that Cameron has lost control of his party. If the prime minister does not reassert his authority soon, he will lose control of the country as well.

Tina Burrett is an assistant professor of International Relations at Temple University, Japan Campus.